If you pretend you’re Pixar, you’re bound to bump up your screenwriting to the next level. I’m not insisting you change your desk lamp to a Luxo, although they are pretty nifty. I believe examining Pixar’s philosophy and practices can be illuminating for screenwriters.
I recently watched a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founding member of Pixar and their Chief Creative Officer, overseeing all of the studio’s projects. And John directed Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2.
Pixar has created some of the most successful animated films in history, achieving both critical and financial success time and again. As of July 2013, Pixar’s 14 feature films have made over $8.3 billion worldwide, with an average worldwide gross of $597 million per film. Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 are among the 50 highest-grossing films of all time, and all of Pixar’s films are among the 50 highest-grossing animated films, with Toy Story 3 being the all-time highest, grossing over $1 billion worldwide.
Along the way, the studio has earned 27 Academy Awards.
I hate to hit you with so many stats, but clearly these folks know what they’re doing. Audiences adore Pixar movies.
John Lasseter is as articulate as he is passionate. His interview was like a Masters Class in storytelling. For me, there were three big takeaways from his discussion with Charlie Rose. Applying these Pixar Principles to your screenwriting can help you look at your own creative process in a new light.
Pixar Starts With The Heart Of The Story
John is crystal clear on what makes Pixar masterful storytellers. Beginning from the earliest stages of considering a concept up to every single element you see in the frame, Pixar focuses on theme:
It begins with a story idea, a story notion, and what I look for first and foremost is where is the emotion going to be in this story?
…The power of these films is when Woody in Toy Story 2 is deciding, “Do I go to this museum where I can live forever, but I’ll never be loved again, or go home, be loved and may not last another day?”
That’s what we start with as we develop these films. Where is the heart of these films going to come from? It’s what we call the foundation of the story. You can’t add that later – you start with that…
The emotion comes from the growth of the main character. What does the main character learn? How does he change through this? And how they change sets up what we call the theme or the lesson… We work on that first and foremost because that’s something that informs everything that goes on in the story. Everything in our stories is about the main character’s journey. If it doesn’t support that main character’s journey, it’s not necessary in the film.
So my homework for this article was to re-watch Toy Story 2. My favorite form of “hitting the books.” (And, as a side note, TS2 is the only movie ever in which air ducts are utilized appropriately!)
I found theme at every major beat of the story, start to finish. It’s even in the choice of what was playing on a TV in the background.
Here it is at the Second Pinch Point, setting up Woody’s dilemma. Buzz finally arrives to rescue Woody, but Woody doesn’t want to go home:
Woody, you’re not a collector’s item. You are a child’s plaything. You are a toy!
For how much longer? One more rip and Andy’s done with me. And what do I do then Buzz, huh? You tell me.
Somewhere in all that pad of stuffing is a guy who taught me that life is only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid. And I traveled all this way to rescue that toy because I believed him.
The theme of Toy Story 2? “Life is not about living long, it’s about loving and being loved.”
Heavy stuff for “a kids’ movie,” right? But that’s just it. Pixar isn’t making children’s movies. They’re making films for every segment of the movie-going audience – what Hollywood marketing execs like to refer to as the Four Quadrants. My Pixar U students were quick to inform me that at Pixar they consider there to be “Five Quadrants,” the fifth being The Family. Pixar movies speak to everyone.
Start with the heart of your story and stick with it at every juncture in the life of your screenplay, from conceiving the concept through crafting the script, to querying and pitching.
I recently sent a short email to an A-list director about a spec I’m getting ready to take out into the marketplace as a producer. It was late on a Friday afternoon. I had a positive response within the hour. I’d like to think that beyond the director being unfailingly polite and the fact that our relationship that dates back to the beginnings of his career, it’s because the letter conveyed why he would want to look at the material.
I told him the tone and genre, included a logline that conveyed the concept and revealed the hook. I added one more brief paragraph. It began, “At its heart, this is about…”
I told him WHY this script might be worth his attention.
Theme informs and elevates every aspect of story. It is the peanut butter in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Having some in every single bite makes a story delicious.
Be Wrong As Fast As You Can
The moment I heard it, I fell in love with this phrase! Coined by Pixar collaborator Andrew Stanton, it is both electrifying and freeing. It resonated with me because it embodies a core concept of my screenwriting seminars – experimenting with a movie idea while it is still in its infancy, when you can play with it. Explore options. Quickly try on variations, like spinning a Rubik’s Cube, until you uncover the best possible version of your story.
Andrew’s work includes writing and directing Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (as co-director), Finding Nemo and WALL-E. He also co-wrote every film of the Toy Story franchise and Monsters, Inc. Finding Nemo and WALL-E earned him two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature.
Lasseter explains why Stanton is a proponent of “Be wrong as fast as you can.”
Because it’s true. We come up with an outline, then we go to a treatment. The treatment, once we work and rework that, we then go to a script. We do a few versions of the script… Every time you take a step to the next phase, the first draft of the script is always not good. But it’s ok. Get there as fast as you go.
During my students’ year of post-seminar mentorship with me, they work in outline form. Together we find out what’s working, discover problems, and try out solutions on two pieces of paper. We keep going until it succeeds on every level: concept, tone, plot, character, conflict, structure, arc and theme. It’s much faster – and much less painful – to rework two pages than rip apart and rewrite a 120-page screenplay.
Being wrong can be one of the greatest learning experiences possible. Pixar isn’t afraid to make mistakes. Be open to making mistakes. In fact be eager. These missteps strengthen your story. Freeing yourself up to trial and error fast-tracks your development process to the speed of light.
Pixar’s Story Reels
The concept of Story Reels springs from the world of CGI but can show you a way determine if your script is “done.” According to John, here’s how it works at Pixar:
In live action filmmaking… they’ll go out and shoot the coverage at location or on sets. And they shoot many different takes of a scene, many different angles of the scene. And all that coverage is then taken into the editing room for postproduction.
We can’t afford that in animation. It is so expensive to produce, we can’t do the coverage. So, therefore, what we do is edit the movie before we start production. After the script, we go into storyboarding, and we will make a version of the movie using the still storyboard drawings. And we’ll put our own voices to it, scratch voices, we’ll put temporary music from other sound tracks, temporary sound effects, and we can sit back in our theatre and watch these Story Reels.
And we will revise these Story Reels probably four to six times before we ever send any sequence into animation production. I’m the one that approves things to go into production. And I will never let a story reel go into production without it working great – whether it’s funny, emotional, action packed, whatever. I want it to be great in the story reels because that’s a way that you can predict how the story is working.
Apply the same principle to your screenwriting. Make every element great before you “go into production.” Evaluating and honing at each juncture of the development process from concept, to logline to scene, ensures you will have a strong script before you even consider sending it out into the world.
Revise the concept until it is captivating. Create a killer logline. Test-drive your idea. Pitch your story and watch how listeners react. Work and rework and rework the outline, crafting a rock solid foundation for your script.
Perfect each element of your screenplay before moving on. Focus on making each scene purposeful, each sequence solid, each act escalating. Have a reading to hear your words aloud. Is it working great? If you had to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on a costly production, would you? Because in fact, that’s exactly what you will be asking someone to do someday.
Take the Pixar approach all the way to the marketing of your screenplay. Write a professional and polished query that conveys the tone, the hero, the story and reveals the heart of the story. Have friends read your letter to see if it is both perfectly written and communicates why it’s worth our attention.
When you pretend you’re Pixar, you might see your own process in a new light. The effects on your screenwriting will be immediate, lasting, and profound. These Pixar Principles can make you a masterful storyteller whose work engages and moves people. And hopefully, along the way, your story will become one that audiences adore.
Watch the Charlie Rose interview here.
- More Breaking & Entering articles by Barri Evins
- Storytelling Strategies: Monsters University’s Scary Character Arcs
- Specs & The City: Sequences and ‘Toy Story’ Part 5
Get more tips on successful stories with Karl Iglesias’ webinar
Pixar’s Emotional Core: The Essential Elements in All Successful Stories